Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun

Died yesterday at 104. A formidable intellect. I recommend the obituary to give you a sense of the man.

I read From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 to the present when it first came out in 2000. I intended to reread it immediately, this time marking its themes (which he places in SMALLCAPS to help you follow them) and taking notes.  I never got farther than writing them in the inside cover.  That one has a yellow highlight mark next to it suggests I was going to color-code them. His overarching themes are


Perhaps I should reread now.  If not now, when?

Decadence, BTW, he uses in something between a popular and a technical sense.
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
His characterisation of the late 20th C as decadent was not merely complaint.  He used the term to highlight that something was coming to an end.  He was not optimiist about what would emerge next, but neither was he without hope.  He was 92 at the time, and I could not help but wonder if his own coming to an end severely influenced him to perceive that the same is happening to his culture.  CS Lewis had voiced similar sentiments sixty years earlier in De Descriptione Temporum , his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, in which he describes the Great Divide between the longstanding earlier culture and the emerging one.
I have said that the vast change which separates you from Old Western has been gradual and is not even now complete. Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet; are meeting in this room. This is quite normal at times of great change. The correspondence of Henry More and Descartes is an amusing example; one would think the two men were writing in different centuries. And here comes the rub. I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours.
Of course, Barzun was born only twelve years after Lewis, so they are perhaps more contemporaries than not. If the change was not then complete, perhaps Barzun describes its last shiverings. Still, I wonder if the people who have read simply everything sense in their maturity that the whole enterprise is winding down, whatever era they live in.

To read Barzun is be deeply aware how little one has actually read, however many of the references one recognises. I recall that I fairly rejoiced whenever I encountered something I was actually knowledgeable about. 90% of the time, I was playing catch-up. That is not entirely a function of his far greater knowledge, however.  Though he lived in America and taught for many years at Columbia, his orientation toward continental Europe is much stronger than would be typical for a British or American scholar.  French, Italian, and German writers and artists loom much larger for him than we are used to in our reading.

Whether because I am stupid or merely prejudiced, I still call that a weakness.

1 comment:

jaed said...

peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. [...] Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue[...]

Random reaction: It strikes me that this is a reasonably good description of clinical depression.